* Former Shi'ite Iraqi militias backing Assad troops
* Militia commanders say volunteers not sanctioned
* Syria crisis a difficult balance for Iraq
By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD, Oct 16 Scores of Iraqi Shi'ite
militants are fighting in Syria, often alongside President
Bashar al-Assad's troops, and pledging loyalty to Iran's supreme
Shi'ite religious leader, according to militia fighters and
politicians in Iraq.
Iraqi Shi'ite militia involvement in Syria's conflict exposes
how rapidly the crisis has spiralled into a proxy war between
Assad's main ally Shi'ite Iran and the Sunni Arab Gulf states
supporting mostly Sunni rebels fighting the president.
The conflict has already drawn in a stream of Sunni Islamist
fighters from across the region attracted to the rebel cause,
while on the other side Syrian rebels accuse Lebanon's Shi'ite
Hezbollah of supporting Assad's troops on the ground.
For Iraqi Shi'ites who follow Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
the uprising in Syria threatens Shi'ite influence and Iraqis
fighting there say they see a duty to help Assad because of
their loyalty to the Islamic Republic's highest authority.
Among them are defectors and former fighters from anti-U.S
Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, the Iran-backed Badr
group and Asaib al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah, militias who once
waged a bloody war on American troops, Shi'ite militants and
Iraqi politicians say.
Shi'ite politicians say militants fighting in Syria have no
official sanction from their militia leadership or from Iraq's
Shi'ite-led government which is caught in a delicate balancing
act between its ally Tehran, and Western and Arab powers calling
for Assad to go.
Some of the Iraqi militants are former Mehdi Army fighters
who took refugee in Syria after 2007 when their group was
crushed by Iraqi forces. Others, loyal to Khamenei as a
religious authority, crossed over recently, fighters and Iraqi
"We formed the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas brigade which includes
500 Iraqi, Syrian and some other nationalities," an Iraqi
defector from the Mehdi Army who goes by the name of Abu Hajar
told Reuters by satellite telephone from Syria.
"When the fighting erupted in our areas, we carried out some
joint military operations side by side with the Syrian army to
clean up areas seized by rebels," said Abu Hajar, who like
others was a refugee in Syria before the conflict.
The brigade is named after Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas, a brother
of Imam Hussain Bin Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Al-Abbas was killed with his brother more than 1,300 years ago,
and since then has become a symbol of sacrifice for Shi'ite
Another Mehdi Army defector, Abu Mujahid, who recently
returned from Syria to visit his family in the Iraqi city of
Najaf said his group's mission in Syria was restricted to
securing the famed Sayyida Zeinab Shi'ite shrine and its nearby
But sometimes, he said, they carry out pre-emptive raids on
Free Syrian Army rebel fighters, whenever they get information
rebels will attack the shrine, offices of Shi'ite religious
leaders, known as Marjaiya, and Shi'ite neighbourhoods.
"Our mission is securing the shrine, the Shi'ite areas and
the Marjaiya offices," Abu Mujahid said. "We have no clear
battlefield, but, from time to time, we carry out raids with the
army on the sites of the Free Syrian Army."
MARTYRS AND TORTURE
Syrian rebels consider the Shi'ite militants a pro-Assad
militia. Some have been captured and killed in combat, militants
and local families in Iraq said.
In Baghdad's Ameen Shi'ite neighbourhood, a large recently
erected billboard shows the photograph of a bearded Mehdi Army
militant who the poster proclaims became a "matyr" in February.
Neighbourhood families say he was killed in fighting in Syria.
A video posted on YouTube last month by Syrian rebels showed
a young man named as Ahmed al-Maksosi whose face appeared to be
swollen with signs of beating and torture as he confessed that
he was a Mehdi Army fighter.
Iraqi Shi'ite militants said Maksosi was one of their
comrades fighting with them in one of the Sayyida Zeinab
neighborhoods. They said he was kidnapped and tortured by the
FSA before he was killed.
Abu Mujahid, Abu Hajar and Iraqi Shi'ite politicians with
knowledge of the militias said those who went to Syria were
individual volunteers traveling with their own passports through
They said there were contacts responsible for receiving and
organizing volunteers, arming them and directing them to tasks,
but all were facing the problem of funding, much of which they
said came from some Iraqi merchants in Syria.
The Badr organization, Asaib al-Haq and Mehdi Army leaders
told Reuters they had not sent fighters to Syria because they
believe the upheaval was an internal affair. Sending fighters
would be an intervention in the Syrian affairs.
"We have not sent any people to Syria...some people think
fighting in Syria is legitimate, so maybe individuals went there
without coordinating with their leaders," said a senior Badr
organization leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Syria's upheaval is a political nightmare for Iraq's Shiite
led government which believes a messy fall of Assad would
fracture Syria along sectarian lines and yield a hostile,
hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq's own
combustible Sunni-Shi'ite communal mix.
Iraq says it has a policy of non-interference in Syria -
but stays close to Tehran's position by refusing to endorse
Western and Arab League demands for the removal of Assad, whose
Alawite minority faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
The United States, European allies, Turkey and Gulf Arab
states have sided with the Syrian opposition while Iran, Russia
and China have backed Assad, whose family and minority Alawite
sect have dominated Syria for 42 years.
Shi'ite-ruled Iran has tried to counter a perceived drive by
Western and U.S.-aligned Sunni Muslim nations to roll back its
own power in the Middle East and fears success for the Sunni-led
uprising in Syria.
Iraqi militants and politicians say there appear to be no
Iranian fighters on the ground in Syria, but there were Lebanese
Hezbollah experts and officers training people.
"Iran is working there by using Hezbollah, there are
officers and militants from Hezbollah-Lebanon training the
citizens and developing their fighting skills and abilities,"
Iraqi militant Abu Mujahid said.
Iran has nominated a senior Iraqi Shi'ite leader within Badr
- whose political wing ISCI is closely backed by Tehran - to
control militant groups and coordinate between the Syrian
government and the Iraqi Shi'ite groups, a politician allied
with the militia groups said.
"Syria's army troops cannot hold all the ground," said Abu
Mujahid. "They come for an hour or two, daily, to liberate the
seized areas from the rebels and leave the rest up to us and the
Shi'ite residents of these areas."